Traverse City’s Brown Bridge Trust Fund: Time to spend?
Or, time to leverage?
UPDATE 10:10-AM: The revealing of a draft ballot proposal came sooner than thought, the City Commission will discuss the draft at tonight’s meeting at 7PM. Included in the packet here -PDF.
A few weeks ago, the Traverse City City Commission discussed putting to a public vote whether or not to access the BBTF (Brown Bridge Trust Fund) royalties collected from the oil & gas from the City’s Brown Bridge property (City). There was general support, if not agreement on the use of funds to give a capital boost to our 34 city parks, however, there was less agreement on details of how a ballot proposal would read.
The Sunday Record Eagle’s editorial page (RE) highlighted the need for details and questioned the timing of the proposal.
But the best question hasn’t been fully answered: Why? Why does the city now, at a time when tax revenues are slowly creeping back to pre-Great Recession levels and a substantial amount is already being spent on streets and sidewalks and parks aren’t in a crisis mode, do we need to tap the trust fund at all?
If the money is there, why not?
Similar to the State’s Natural Resources Trust Fund, which has funded numerous recreational projects in the area (e.g., Historic Barns, West Boardman Lake Trail, the Bayfront project at Clinch), the City’s BBTF was established with the understanding that the royalties may be used for public good if 60% of voters agree to withdraw funds. That’s one option. Oddly, the other option of capping the fund only needs a simple majority (a more comprehensive history was provided by City Manager Ben Bifoss in the March 23rd packet-PDF).
The BBTF account now sits at around $13.2-million. The City’s general fund receives an annual deposit from the interest income in the range $300,000. The BBTF oil & gas royalty amount also changes year to year, and over the last 10 years has averaged nearly $450,000. The fund regenerates as long as a market for oil and gas exists.
Details, details, details
This idea isn’t new. Withdrawing BBTF money has been done twice before, both times to purchase parkland. Back in 2010, when I was on the Parks and Recreation Commission, then Chairperson Nate Elkins led a signature campaign to have a proposal put on the 2010 ballot. What was attractive about that proposal (included below) was the provision for 1) a timeline of projects, 2) distribution across the City, and 3) the creation of an endowment fund that would help ensure that parks are annually considered an important part of local government.
This is the type of detail that voters would like to see. We want to see the effort tied to a vision and that there is a commitment to use the money, which is otherwise just sitting there, to improve the quality of life of residents and visitors. Investing in our parks and improving access to them has a measurable economic, social, and environmental rate of return when done well.
The details of the latest discussion have yet to be seen. Offers to assist the City staff and the City Commission in this endeavor so far haven’t been met with any invite, which likely means that in the near future a ballot proposal will surface and public input will be limited to public comment at one or two meetings. If so, that’s unfortunate because it risks creating a missed opportunity to achieve something great in favor of perceived expediency.
I know many MyWHaT readers have personal and professional opinions on this subject, so I encourage you to contact the City Commissioners as soon as possible. As well, share with us here what it is you will be looking for in a potential BBTF ballot proposal.
Where do you see potential for adding value to our community?
2010 BBTF Ballot Proposal (Petition language)
We the undersigned support placing on the ballot a proposed amendment to Section 129 of the City Charter.
The amendment would require that three million seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars ($3,750,000) be withdrawn from the principal of the Brown Bridge Trust on or before December 31, 2011, leaving at least nine million ($9,000,000) in the Brown Bridge Trust to be used as currently permitted by the City Charter. Of the three million seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars ($3,750,000) withdrawn from the Trust, the amendment would require that:
- By December 31, 2015 the City of Traverse City spend one million two hundred and fifty thousand ($1,250,000) on planning and capital projects for waterfront parks
- One million two hundred and fifty thousand ($1,250,000) on planning and capital projects for other neighborhood and downtown parks.
- The remaining one million two hundred and fifty thousand ($1,250,000) shall placed in an endowment fund that would be used for payments for park operations and maintenance, including planning and capital projects, and that it would be invested as permitted by MCL 129.97a and other applicable law.
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